Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Travel Planning is hard

In a few weeks I'm off to Europe for a 4-week holiday (mid-April to mid-May). Its tempting to say that 4 weeks is a lot, but it really isn't. Living in Rennes for more than 3 years means I've got a lot of friends I'd like to to visit, and in the years since I've left, they've been inconsiderate enough to scatter themselves across the continent (or so it seems, anyway). The last few weeks I've been wracking my brains to work out how I can get around to visit 20 or so people scattered over 5 or 6 countries (France, Switzerland, UK, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway). The additional complication is having other people travelling around concurrently, and trying seeing to what extent we might join forces.

Its all a bit hard. Every time I think I have a plan, something changes and everything goes up for renegotiation. I'm getting to the point where I have to start booking transport within Europe, and accommodation, at which point changing requirements will have to be ignored.

Friday, 25 March 2011

back to books

This year is proving to be extremely eventful. The end of March is not yet here, but already the year has brought me floods, a change of jobs, a couple of papers being accepted, the achievement of a long-held goal, a family wedding, a bunch of concerts and just a generally more active social life. Nonetheless, one of the things I enjoyed more and more towards the end of last year was getting back into reading, and I've managed to keep that up pretty well.

Since the start of the year, I've read 7 books, across a nice variety of genres. In a less busy time I probably would have blogged about each individually, but in lieu of that, and with more busy times ahead of me, I'll just summarize them here:
  • The Code of the Woosters (Wodehouse): This was the second of three (see below) in an anthology of Wodehouse's Jeeves stories. I hadn't read any Wodehouse before, and they're nice little stories, very well written and very easy to read. They reminded me in time and tone a little of The Importance of Being Ernest, light-hearted and bouncy. To be honest, I can't precisely remember what this one was about - the three I read tended to follow a fairly similar pattern of interwoven personal intrigues - but its the tone and style and movement that matters more than the story.
  • A History of the World in 10 and a Half Chapters (Barnes): I didn't know what to expect of this book, although Michael L recommended it, which made me optimistic. I wasn't disappointed. The book is a series of occasionally and very loosely related parables about, well, the world, I guess. Its hard to pull out more specific themes - certainly religion is prominent, and the way that it influences people's outlooks on the world. I got the feeling that there might have been deeper analogies going on than I was understanding, but that didn't adversely affect my appreciation of the book.
  • Right Ho, Jeeves (Wodehouse): See above, more Jeeves, reliable and fun.
  • The Breaks of the Game (Halberstam): This was an impulse buy based on repeated passing praise of this book by the FreeDarko guys and probably other basketball blogs that I've read over the years. Set around the 1980 Portland Trailblazers, its a really very well written insight into basketball people, from players to coaches and administrators, how they got to where they are and how they relate to the larger changes that were going through basketball, be the implications of race, the role of television, the growing professionalism and salaries, or the onset of injury. I can see why the book has the status it does among basketball pundits.
  • Claudius The God (Graves): After finishing I, Claudius a couple of years ago, I had started on the sequel, but for one reason or another, be it needing a change of style, or because my copy was so fragile I wasn't comfortable carrying it around, I kept putting it aside. Finally this year I started again, and read it through within a few weeks. Like the first book, it treads a fine line between sacrificing narrative form for historical detail, but on the whole it manages it pretty well. I can't help but feel that the first instalment was better, just because it had more going on in terms of having 3 emperors (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, with snippets of Julius at the start and Claudius at the end) rather than one (Claudius). I also felt that Livia, for all that I read she might have been hardly done by, made for a better villain than Messalina. Still, a good book.
  • Notes From Old Nanking (Hamilton): This was a nice little book about observations made by an Australian diplomatic aid in China in the years between 1947-1949. This was the time when the communists overthrew the nationalists, but to be honest, most of the book is vignettes about the lifestyle at the time, and the revolution itself gets relatively little treatment. This surprised me, but changed rather than diminished my enjoyment of the book, in that it made for more of a historical portrait rather than a war story.
  • Holden's Performance (Bail): Murray Bail is one of those Australian authors who I have been remiss not to have read before now. I can see why. This is the story of Holden Shadbolt, and his life between growing up in Adelaide in the years after WWII, before moving to Manly and Canberra in the 50s and 60s. He falls in with a bunch of delightful and delightfully named characters along the way - his stepfather McBee, his uncle Vern and friends Flies & Wheelright, the eccentric theatre owner Alex Screech, his love affair Harriet, the womanising politician Hoadsley, and the collection of bodyguards like Colonel Light and Irving Polaroid. The book is frequently funny and delightfully written, and when Bail extends himself he can be really quite adventurous with his prose. The characters border on caricatures at times, but all are treated with love and respect, and come across as very real. Its also really nice the way he taunts us with historical fact, references to the PM R.G. Amen, to the "one syllable PM" who follows him, enough to give us some context, but steering well clear of historical fiction.
So there you go, 7 books in 3 months. Last year it took me until at least September to get to that point, and so far I've been really enjoying the books, and their variety.

Monday, 7 March 2011

The IMDB Top 250

Its a bit strong to call it a quest, or even a resolution, but over the last 5 or 6 years, when I've been looking for a movie to watch, my first port of call has been the IMDB's Top 250, a list of films ranked by an adjusted average rating of all the users of the IMDB site. It has been a moving target, obviously - there are probably well over fifty films that have entered and departed the list since I started following it, so I've ended up seeing a lot more than what is currently in the list. This has been to my great profit - some of these I had never heard of, but now count among my favourite films.

On Saturday, I went down to Palace Centro and watched True Grit, the Coen Brothers' latest western, a good film with very strong characters and performances, even if the denouement was disappointing (note to self: if I start a film review blog, consider "disappointing denouement" as a name - its an epidemic). At the time I saw it, this was the last remaining film I hadn't seen on the list, so as of March 5, I have completed the list. I expect this will only last a few weeks at the most, but its something that, for no particularly good reason, I'm a little bit proud of.

I've had a wonderful time going through the list. There are so many films, directors and genres that I had never really watched, and would not necessarily have expected to like. I loved the westerns, from Sergio Leone to John Wayne, Butch and Sundance to Unforgiven, and new ones like 3:10 to Yuma (the remake) and the Coen Brothers' latest. I was surprised by how much I liked the silent films I saw, especially Chaplin and Keaton (especially Keaton), but also films like M, Metropolis and The Passion of Joan of Arc. I saw more Asian films because of the 250 list than I had seen previously, and really enjoyed Kurosawa, Old Boy, Infernal Affairs, and In The Mood for Love. Some of the films were "tough" to watch - Bergman and Fellini come to mind - but there was always something to take away from them. The worst film I saw from the list was without question A Christmas Story, which has no place in the list, but its the only one that springs to mind that really disappointed me.

In some ways, its a little sad that I've finished the list, in that I no longer have it as a reference to go to when I want to find a film to watch. On the other hand, I have a much fuller appreciation now of different filmmakers, and I know there are a bunch who I really haven't explored as much as I'd like - Truffaut and Godard, and the French new wave (having really liked Les 400 Coups and Au bout de souffle, and La Salaire de la Peur), and some filmmakers who didn't make the list, like Fassbinder. I also feel a little more comfortable now going back and rewatching some of the films, especially those I haven't seen for a long time now. Also, its only a matter of time before there are new entries to check out :)

Friday, 4 March 2011

up the creek

Some people who follow me on twitter and had some inside connections already knew this was happening, but it probably warrants a proper announcement for anyone else who's still subscribed here or elsewhere.

A couple of weeks ago I tendered my official resignation to QUT. In just over a week I will be starting a new position as lecturer in the School of ITEE at the University of Queensland.